Imagine it is 1988 in Moscow and you are waiting to get your haircut at the local barbershop. While waiting, you browse through the magazines on the nearby table. These magazines consist of the typical Soviet propaganda drivel but one magazine, with its vibrant cover photo of a smiling Asian peasant, sticks out. You pick up the magazine, titled “Korea,” and begin to scroll through the pages.
You soon realize that this magazine is from North Korea and it is even more outlandish and bizarre than Soviet propaganda.
The material in this magazine is incredibly absurd so you tell your friends about it and then those friends tell their peers about the North Korean magazine. Soon, “Korea” magazine becomes so popular in the USSR that a radical rock band called Civil Defense mentions the magazine in their dissident hit song, “Everything Is Going According to Plan.”
THINGS COULD BE WORSE
A scenario such as this likely happened during the final years of the Soviet Union. During the 1980s, Soviet citizens grew increasingly irritated with the inefficiency of the Soviet system and lack of access to Western goods. However, after reading two North Korean magazines, Korea and Korea Today, widely available in the Soviet Union, citizens of the first workers’ state knew at least that their situation was better than that of the pitiful North Koreans.
“The absurd social realism of the [Korea] magazine — no longer a feature of Soviet publications in the 1970s and 1980s — made it a cult publication among liberal intellectuals, who saw in Korea the kitsch of Stalinist times, without the pervasive fear of that epoch,” writes Alexander Bratersky of The Moscow Times.
Korea magazine focused more on visuals while Korea Today magazine was highly textual.
“The focus of Korea Today (Korea Segodnya) was on the texts which read like a bizarre mix of blatant propaganda and inappropriate humor. This is what made it almost dissident in its style,” Russian scholar of Korea Leonid Petrov tells NK News.
Citizens of the first workers’ state knew at least that their situation was better than that of the pitiful North Koreans
“Nobody would dare to mock the Soviet system or Communist Party openly, but Korea Today circulated freely and contained absurd texts about socialism, communist leaders and their cult of personality. The texts were a caricature of the communist system, which was out of reach for censors.”
One passage from Korea Today tells the story of Kim Jong Il investigating a local chewing gum factory.
“In Kim’s opinion, gum is a tasty product which provides happiness to everyone and if the laborers of the plant create more products, working for the people, they will be loved by everyone.”
Even to Soviet citizens accustomed to over-the-top communist texts, North Korean propaganda seemed comical.
During the perestroika era, rock bands sprang up across the Soviet Union. One band, Civil Defense, recorded a song that mocked the positive portrayal of daily life in Soviet propaganda.
The song includes these lyrics, “I bought Korea magazine and it shows Comrade Kim Il Sung, and it shows that everything there is the same as here. And I believe that everything there is going according to plan.”
In a unique twist, Soviet citizens turned North Korean propaganda on its head and used it as a thinly veiled criticism against the communist system as a whole.
“I don’t understand how the Soviet authorities, who persecuted people for having books by [Alexander] Solzhenitsyn, allowed the existence of such a die-hard anti-Communist satire. I believe this outstanding publication played a certain role in destroying the Soviet regime,” says Ukrainian journalist Maryan Belenky.
Russian scholar of North Korea Andrei Lankov believes that the North Korean magazines did not singlehandedly bring down the Soviet Union but that reading them made some Soviet citizens question their system more.
“Well, I think the impact [on the demise of the USSR] was minor, of course, even though exposure to Korea magazine, this masterpiece of unintended political satire, made some people more skeptical of the Soviet system,” Lankov tells NK News. “Others, though, felt encouraged, since they saw the North Korean propaganda as a proof that things could be much worse.”
Soviet citizens turned North Korean propaganda on its head and used it as a thinly veiled criticism against the communist system
A GRIM REMINDER
To Soviet citizens in the 1980s, Stalinism, which was apparent in North Korean magazines, represented the worst form of communism, with its rigid style and lack of genuine expression. The DPRK’s pervasive cult of personality only made its propaganda appear even more ludicrous to foreigners.
For example, an article from Korea magazine’s April 2001 issue tells the story of a giant canvas made of 4.5 million butterflies. According to the article, Korean People’s Army soldiers collected the butterflies on rest breaks during military exercises in 1991. The canvas was titled “A Soldier’s Undying Faith.” Predictably, it was presented to President Kim Il Sung.
Soviet authorities never clamped down on the dissemination of North Korean magazines.
“Perhaps the Soviet regime deliberately neglected this phenomenon in order to show ‘the human face of Soviet system’ as opposed to the ugly parody of Stalinist North Korea,” says Professor Petrov.
Professor Lankov says “the Soviet elite despised North Korea almost as much as the general public – or even more. So they did not mind people seeing the North Koreans make fools of themselves.”
However, not everyone found the North Korean magazines laughable. Some Russians, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, found admirable qualities in them.
“We have plenty to learn from [North] Korea – like having a sense of the greatness of one’s motherland,” Russian ultra-nationalist philosopher and current advisor to the Kremlin Alexander Dugin told The Moscow Times in 2001. “Those who laugh at Korea magazine are laughing at themselves.”
“Those people suck, as Beavis and Butt-Head would say. I don’t think that Juche ideas are any weaker than the ideas of globalization.”
These North Korean magazines even compelled some current Russian academics of Korea to further study the history and culture of North Korea. “My fascination with North Korea started after reading these two journals,” says Professor Petrov.
Oblivious to its legacy of publishing dissident materials in the former Soviet Union, the Foreign Languages Publishing House in Pyongyang continues to this day to churn out Russian language versions of Korea and Korea Today.
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